DEBATE IN THE U.S.
Aryan Invaders -- Brahman Priests -- Rights of Untouchables -- Did
Ancient Indians Eat BEEF?
[We are indebted to India Culture for this article and to Scott Baldauf,
Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor and to the Monitor itself.
The title is ours.]
NEW DELHI - In the halls of Sacramento, California a special commission
is rewriting Indian history: debating whether Aryan invaders conquered
the subcontinent, whether Brahman priests had more rights than
untouchables, and even whether ancient Indians ate beef.
That this seemingly arcane Indian debate has spilled over into
California's board of education is a sign of the growing political
muscle of Indian immigrants and the rising American interest in Asia.
The foes - who include established historians and Hindu nationalist
revisionists - are familiar to each other in India. But America may
increasingly become their new battlefield as other US states follow
California in rewriting their own textbooks to bone up on Asian history.
At stake, say scholars who include some of the most elite historians on
India, may be a truthful picture of one of the world's emerging powers -
one arrived at by academic standards of proof rather than assertions of
national or religious pride.
"Some of the groups involved here are not qualified to write textbooks,
they do not draw lines between myth and history," says Anu Mandavilli,
an Indian doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California,
and activist against the Hindu right. Speaking of one of the groups, the
Vedic Foundation in Austin, Texas, she adds, "On their website, they
claim that Hindu civilization started 111.5 trillion years ago. That
makes Hinduism billions of years older than the Big Bang." (The
assertion has since been pulled from the site.)
"It would be ridiculous if it weren't so dangerous."
p>Communities use history to define themselves - their core ideals,
achievements, and grudges. Small wonder, then, that history is
frequently reevaluated as political pendulums shift, or as
long-oppressed minority groups finally get their say. History, and
efforts to revise it, have touched off recent controversies between
Japan and its neighbors over its World War II past, as well as between
France and its former colonies over the portrayal of imperialism.
Here in India, Hindu nationalists have pushed forcefully for revisionism
after what they see as centuries of cultural domination by the British
Raj and Muslim Mogul Empire.
Instigating the California debate were two US-based Hindu groups with
long ties to Hindu nationalist parties in India. One, the Vedic
Foundation, is a small Hindu sect that aims at simplifying Hinduism to
the worship of one god, Vishnu. The other, the Hindu Education
Foundation (HEF), was founded in 2004 by a branch of the right-wing
Indian group the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
This year, as California's Board of Education commissioned and put up
for review textbooks to be used in its 6th-grade classrooms, these two
groups came forward with demands for substantial changes.
Textbooks did have glaring mistakes
Some of the changes were no-brainers. One section said, incorrectly,
that the Hindi language is written in Arabic script. One photo caption
misidentified a Muslim as a Brahman priest.
But instead of focusing on such errors, the groups took steps to add
their own nationalist imprint to Indian history.
In one edit, the HEF asked the textbook publisher to change a sentence
describing discrimination against women in ancient society to the
following: "Men had different duties (dharma) as well as rights than
In another edit, the HEF objected to a sentence that said that Aryan
rulers had "created a caste system" in India that kept groups separated
according to their jobs. The HEF asked this to be changed to the
following: "During Vedic times, people were divided into different
social groups (varnas) based on their capacity to undertake a particular
The hottest debate centered on when Indian civilization began, and by
whom. For the past 150 years, most historical, linguistic, and
archaeological research has dated India's earliest settlements to around
2600 BC. And most established historical research contends that the
cornerstone of Indian civilization - the practice of Hindu religion -
was codified by people who came from outside India, specifically Aryan
language speakers from the steppes of Central Asia.
Many Hindu nationalists are upset by the notion that Hinduism could be
yet another religion, like Islam and Christianity, with foreign roots.
The HEF and Vedic Foundation both lobbied hard to change the wording of
California's textbooks so that Hinduism would be described as purely
"Textbooks must mention that none of the [ancient] texts, nor any Indian
tradition, has a recollection of any Aryan invasion or migration,"
writes S. Kalyanaraman, an engineer and prominent pro-Hindu activist, in
an e-mail to this reporter. He and other revisionists refer to recent
studies that don't support an Aryan migration, including skeletal
anthropology research that claims to show a continuity of record from
Neolithic times. Such research has not convinced top Indologists to
abandon the Aryan theory, however.
The final changes in California's textbooks are expected in the next few
weeks, but in the meantime, mainstream academics, both in America and
abroad, are setting off alarm bells.
"It was a whitewash," says Michael Witzel, a Harvard University Sanskrit
scholar and Indologist, who testified before the commission in
Sacramento. "The textbooks before were not very good, but at least they
were more or less presentable. Now, it is completely incorrect."
Aryan invasion a British-era theory
Early proponents of the "Aryan Invasion Theory" proposed in 1850 by
philologist Max Mueller may have had political agendas to justify the
subjugation of the subcontinent, Mr. Witzel says, but the preponderance
of evidence shows that Aryans came to India, with their horses, their
chariots, and their religious beliefs, from outside.
"Unquestionably, all sides of Indian history must be repeatedly
re-examined," wrote Witzel and comparative historian Steve Farmer, in an
influential article in the Indian magazine Frontline in 2000. "But any
massive revisions must arise from the discovery of new evidence, not
from desires to boost national or sectarian pride at any cost."
On the other side of the debate, the historian Meenakshi Jain, a
self-described nationalist, says that history is meant to be rewritten,
depending on the perspective and needs of the present time.
"Indic civilization has been a big victim of misrepresentation and
belittling of our culture," says Ms. Jain, a historian at Delhi
University and author of a high school history textbook accepted by
India's previous government, led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata
Pride has its place in history?
Like many Hindus, Jain is proud of the accomplishments of Indian
history, such as the fact that three small Hindu kingdoms - Kabul, Zabul,
and Sindh - were able to hold off invading Muslim armies for 400 years.
She also thinks that students should learn that some of India's most
famous temples were commissioned not by upper caste Hindu kings but by
aboriginal tribes, who in modern times have been relegated to "backward
"There is no such thing as an objective history," Jain says. "So when we
write a textbook, we should make students aware of the status of current
research of leading scholars in the field. It should not shut out a love
for motherland, a pride in your past. If you teach that your country is
backward, that it has no redeeming features in our civilization, it can
damage a young perspective."
But no matter which version of Indian history California adopts for its
6th graders, it is bound to aggravate someone. The Board of Education
has already heard from South Indians who argued that the HEF and Vedic
Foundation represent a North Indian upper-caste perspective.
"We were saying, 'These groups don't speak for us,' " says Anu
Mandavilli, herself a South Indian. When groups like the Vedic
Foundation try to simplify Hinduism as the worship of a single god,
"they have their own agendas."